"I remember all of this," says Catherine Charneau, owner of the Le Village Hotel on St. Barth, sweeping her hand across the mountainside above the hotel, now speckled with luxury villas, "when there wasn't anything up there."
On an island that always seems to be about the new and the nouveau, Charneau is history speaking, the island's institutional memory: She remembers learning to drive a Mini Moke on the airport runway and the Eden Rock when it was a simple guesthouse.
"Can we find a more youthful word than 'doyenne?'" she retorts when I ask her if she holds that position among St. Barth hoteliers.
Charneau grew up on a plantation in Guadeloupe—"It was quite idyllic; we grew everything we needed on the plantation"—went to Munich at 17 to study art history "because I was very curious to discover the world," worked as a tour guide in Paris, married a German military officer, and came back to St. Barth with him in 1987 to help out at Le Village, after her father had a stroke. (Her family started the hotel at the end of the '60s.) Her husband thought St. Barth was a great posting; she thought his alternative, Taiwan, was better.
So Charneau is the reluctant hotelier: "I learned by doing and at tradeshows from fellow hoteliers who taught me the basic rules," she says. Which may be why she has made Le Village into something unique on St. Barth: homegrown as opposed to international. (For the record, her favorite hotel brand is Aman.)
Le Village is tucked into 10 acres of lush vegetation in a slightly willy-nilly fashion, á la French hill towns. It is only a 10-minute walk downhill to St. Jean, but sufficiently high up so that many rooms and the pool have terrific ocean views. As such, Le Village is a four-star hotel with three-star rates on a five-star island. In high season, the most expensive room for two—a Superior Junior Suite—costs 710 Euros.
I particularly liked the Junior Terrace Suites (rooms 5, 6, and 9). Room 9 is the newest one. It has a separate living room with a pullout couch, a large deck with views over St. Jean Bay, and two bathrooms—one with a walk-in shower that has a wall partially made of a rock that was just too stubborn to dislodge. Overall it has the feel of a beachy penthouse.
I also liked Superior Suite 8, up a steep flight of stairs from the pool, but a nice perch; number 15, a Tradition Cottage that has more outdoor space (300 sq. ft.) than indoor (237 sq. ft.); and Superior Terrace Suites 10, 12, and 14, all of which are buried in the foliage near reception but have great ocean views, as the hill drops off sharply in front of them.
Room 10 was the favorite of then New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne, who came to the hotel every winter for years. He left his pots and pans with Charneau, and he left a record of the Christmas Day meal he cooked in 1977 on pages 198-203 of the New York Times International Cookbook. The menu Claiborne printed up for his guests is still in the room.
Le Village offers two things that luxury travelers today, according to almost every survey, say they crave: simplicity and authenticity. The hotel is at once a step back in time as well as up-to-date. Charneau has pulled off quite a feat: keeping the luxuries simple (while every hotelier around you is upping the ante) and making the simple luxurious. Le Village is about the being here: In the morning, you walk down to St. Jean (10 minutes), have coffee and a croissant, window-shop for bikinis, and go for a swim in Baie St. Jean. Just as you might have done on the French Riviera 40 years ago.
The rest of the day is just across the doorstep.
Fly to St. Barth with Tradewind Aviation, offering daily scheduled shuttles connecting through San Juan, Puerto Rico, Antigua, and the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas.